PIERCEBRIDGE ROMAN FORT
and the RIVER TEES/DERE STREET ROMAN BRIDGE
Dere Street was constructed as the Roman army advanced north during the latter years of the first century AD. That road was carried over the River Tees at Piercebridge where the Romans built a substantial bridge over the fast flowing river. Later rebuilt in stone and protected by a fort, it remained in use long after the Roman military had withdrawn from Britain.
The settlement of Piercebridge developed at the point where Dere Street, the main Roman Road north from York, crossed the River Tees. A timber bridge was constructed by the army around AD 80 and invariably merchants were attracted to the location as it would have benefited from trade from both the road and the river. By AD 100 a civilian settlement (known as a vicus) had developed but no evidence has been found of a contemporary fort in the immediate vicinity. A Roman military outpost did exist on the south bank of the River Tees, around one mile from Piercebridge, but it is uncertain whether this was a first century AD foundation as it has defied attempts to date it.
Around AD 150 the bridge over the River Tees was destroyed by flooding. The army built a replacement, this time from stone, several hundred metres downstream and it is these remains which can be seen today. The bridge consisted of north and south abutments and four pointed piers which were all built from large stone blocks locked together by iron clamps. Between each stone pier was submerged, flat stone paving which calmed the flow of the river to reduce stress on the bridge structure. The road itself would have been timber.
Around AD 260 the Romans built a fort at Piercebridge perhaps replacing an earlier military facility on a different site. These are the remains visible today and it was probably known as Morbium. The fortification conformed to the standard 'playing card' layout with a Headquarters building in the centre, an adjacent Commanding Officer's house whilst barracks, workshops, granaries and a hospital occupied the remainder of the compound. The defences consisted of a stone curtain wall with gates centrally placed on each side. The East Gate, in proximity to Dere Street, was probably the main access. In addition a 'V' shaped ditch ran around the outside of the wall, its position and angle carefully aligned with the top of the parapet to optimise use of the Roman javelin (pilum). In between the wall and the ditch was the berm - flat ground essential to avoid subsidence - but this was protected by lilia, concealed pits with sharpened wooden spikes.
Although Roman military forces had been withdrawn from Britain no later than AD 409, the fort seems to have continued in use after this date. Perhaps the garrison, which had probably been recruited locally, formed a regional war-band and continued to use it as a base or alternatively the fort’s defences may have been re-used as a fortified settlement by the local populace. The bridge also remained in use after the link with Rome was severed but over the subsequent years the River Tees moved its course to the north leaving a portion of the structure quite literally high and dry. Even then it remained in use and an earth causeway was built over the marooned southern abutment. It is not certain when the bridge itself went out of use but it was later covered by silt which protected the remains until unearthed during gravel quarrying in 1972.
Berggren, A. J (2000). Ptolemy's Geography. Princeton University Press.
Breeze, D.J (2002). Roman Forts in Britain. Shire Archaeology, Oxford.
Breeze, D.J (2011). The Frontiers of Imperial Rome. Pen and Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley.
Campbell, D.B (2009). Roman Auxiliary Forts 27BC-AD378. Osprey, Oxford.
Collingwood, R.G and Wright, R.P (1965). The Roman Inscriptions of Britain. Oxford.
Davies, H (2008). Roman Roads in Britain. Shire Archaeology, Oxford.
Fields, N (2005). Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70-235. Osprey, Oxford.
Historic England (2016). Piercebridge Roman Fort List entry Number: 1002365. Historic England, London.
Hobbs, R and Jackson, R (2010). Roman Britain. British Museum Company Ltd, London.
Ordnance Survey, Historic England and RCAHMW (2016). Roman Britain. 1:625,000 Scale. Ordnance Survey, Southampton.
Waite, J (2011). To Rule Britannia. The History Press, Stroud.
Piercebridge Roman Fort has been partially excavated with the visible remains including a courtyard building, part of the curtain wall and the east gate. The remains of the bridge are nearby.
Roman Military Presence Northern England. Piercebridge (Morbium) was located upon the main north/south route known as Dere Street between Catterick (Cataractonium) and Binchester (Vinovia). To the north of the latter was the Hadrianic frontier.
Piercebridge Roman Fort. Piercebridge (Morbium) Fort was raised around AD 260. Only part of the site has been excavated but the remains of several buildings and the East Gate are visible.
East Gate. The primary entrance to the fort was the East and West Gates which carried Dere Street through the fortification. This was the main road north along the eastern spine of Britain. Built by the Roman army as they advanced, it facilitated good communications between the Legionary base at York and Northern England/Scotland. Forts were established along its length, normally around ten miles apart (deemed half a day's march for a Legionary), and in County Durham these were established at Binchester, Ebcester, Lanchester and Piercebridge. Dere Street passed through both Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall during their occupation.
Courtyard Building. The remains of a courtyard building and bath house within Piercebridge Roman Fort.
Ditches. The fort was protected by V-shaped ditches.
Lilia. Between the defensive ditches and the rampart was a flat area known as the berm. This was protected by small pits, filled with stakes, which acted as an anti-personnel measure.
Piercebridge Roman Bridge. The southern bridge abutment has survived due to the fact it was left high and dry by the shifting north of the River Tees. The flat paving in the foreground was designed to smooth the flow of the water reducing stress on the abutment and the piers of the bridge. Other abutments can be seen at Chesters Roman Fort and near Birdoswald - both bridges formed part of Hadrian's Wall.
Piercebridge Roman bridge is found to the south of the River Tees on the B6275. There is a car park and footpath to the remains. The fort is found just over the modern bridge either following the B6275 or a dedicated footpath immediately to the right of the bridge.
Piercebridge Roman Bridge
Piercebridge Roman Fort